A dictionary is an alphabetically arranged publication containing information about words, meanings, spelling, pronunciation, syllabication and usages. It may also give synonyms, anonyms, illustrative quotations, maps and plates, biographical facts and geographical information. The word ‘dictionary’ comes from the Latin diction, meaning a word or a phrase.
A thesaurus is a work containing synonymous and related words and phrases rather than explaining meanings. The word thesaurus (of Greek origin) means a storehouse or treasury of knowledge. The term thesaurus is used to describe dictionaries which arrange words in classified order and not in the usual alphabetical order. It is also used for a list of controlled terms used in a database.
A lexicon is a dictionary, most often of ancient languages – e.g. Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. The term is derived from the Greek lexis meaning words.
A glossary is an alphabetical list of definitions. The list may relate to words used in a particular book or to a particular subject.
A glossary is an alphabetical index of important words in a book, or the works of an author, with references to the phrases and passages in the text. Examples include concordances to the Bible, or a particular author – e.g. Shakespeare and Chaucer.
Categories of dictionaries
Dictionaries are categorized according to the number of words listed:
Unabridged: over 250,000 words
Semi-abridged: 130,000-250,000 words
Abridged/Concise: 55,000-130,000 words
Pocket: under 55,000 words
Children’s/School: 25,000-95,000 words
Find an example of each of the following types of dictionaries and list the titles.
- Children’s (these include definitions in simple language and use large type)
- Synonyms and antonyms
- Abbreviations and acronyms
- Subject (these include highly specialized words)
- Foreign language (these offer the foreign word and English equivalent, but not the meaning)
- Crossword (arranged by the nuer of letters in a word, or by the definition)
- Obsolete words
- New words
- Eponyms (words based on a person’s name – e.g. Braille, wellington boot, peach melba)
Use of dictionaries
Dictionaries are likely to include the following details about a word:
- spelling with preferred variants
- syllabication – division into units of pronunciation
- part of speech – verb, noun, adverb, etc.
- etymology – origin
- definition – the exact meaning
- synonyms – a word or phrase meaning exactly or nearly the same
- antonyms – a word or phrase opposite in meaning
- illustrative quotations – to show how a word is used
- usage labels – e.g. slang, obsolete, US
- illustrations – e.g. pictures, diagrams
They are used in a reference section to check the meaning, pronunciation and spelling of words. They may be used as a guide to correct grammar, to find out usage of words or to explain the origin of a word. Dictionaries are useful if you are preparing a literature search or answering a reference query on an unfamiliar subject.
There are two approaches to editing a dictionary.
The prescriptive approach – lays down ‘correct’ standards of word acceptability and usage. The editors must follow tradition and prevent combination of the pure language by jargon.
The descriptive approach – records words as they are used (and misused) without passing judgment. A particular word used often enough becomes acceptable.
Descriptive is the more common and modern approach. When illustrating the definition of a word, the editors use quotes not only from ‘good’ literature but also from newspapers, TV and speeches.
Examining a dictionary
Most people who consult a dictionary never read its instructions on use – are you guilty of this? Dictionaries usually include the following features:
- a preface which states the scope of the publication as well as its aim
- a key to abbreviation
- a key to pronunciation which may use the phonetic alphabet or re-spell the words using the ordinary alphabet
- the main sequence of words which is usually in alphabetical order but may occasionally be in classified order. It may be word by word or letter by letter. The content of entries gives lots of information – e.g. origin, history, how the word is used.
- a supplementary sequence of words which may update the main sequence or deal with special categories of words – e.g. meanings of first names. It may include encyclopedic information – e.g. weights and measures, lists of royalty, chemical compounds, etc.
Evaluating a dictionary
In order to decide whether a dictionary will suit your purposes, you should consider the following points:
Authority - This is determined by who has compiled the dictionary and who published it.
Ease of use - A good dictionary includes clear introductory information on its purpose, scope and features, keys to abbreviations and pronunciation.
Word coverage - The word coverage may be limited, because it is impossible for a general dictionary to be comprehensive without becoming excessively large. A dictionary needs regular updating to include new words and changes in usage.
Word treatment - It is important to know how a dictionary treats its words – does it give etymology, quotations, illustrations? The definitions must be clear and accurate.
When deciding which dictionary to use:
- Listen to or read the question carefully. Look for keywords which will help you decide which source to use – e.g. the question ‘Who said “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”?’ would lead you to a dictionary of quotations.
- Make sure you know what information is required. Does the enquirer want a meaning of a word or its origins?
- Decide whether the question indicates which country the word is used in. Does it give clues to the origin of the word – e.g. that it derives from a particular language?
Using a general purpose dictionary (eg the Concise Oxford dictionary or the Macquarie dictionary), decide which word in the following pairs is spelt correctly.
Using a general purpose dictionary (eg the Concise Oxford dictionary or the Macquarie dictionary), decide which word in the following pairs is spelt correctly.
Choose 2 of the following words and compare their definitions in 3 different dictionaries.
Search on the Internet to find a range of dictionaries. Choose a search engine such as Yahoo at http://www.yahoo.com/ Click on Reference, then on Dictionaries. Choose 5 subject-specific dictionaries and write the titles below.
Choose examples of dictionaries in print or electronic form from the list below. Fill in the details for as many as you can locate. Photocopy the headings if you need additional space.
|Acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations dictionary||Fowler's modern English usage|
|Australian dictionary of acronyms and abbreviations||Macquerie dictionary|
|Black's medical dictionary||Oxford dictionary of quotations|
|Brewer's dictionary of phrase and fable||Roget's thesaurus of English words and phrases|
|Chambers science and technology dictionary||Shorter Oxford English dictionary|
|Collins concise dictionary||Webster's third new international dictionary|
Place, publisher, date
Intended user group
Using sources you are familiar with, suggest a type of dictionary which is likely to provide the answers to the following questions – e.g. a medical dictionary. (You do not need to give the exact title or bibliographic details.)
|1. What is herpetology?||General English dictionary|
|2. What does the Australian term cozzie mean?||Australian dictionary|
|3. What is the origin of the phrase 'son of a gun'?||Phrases|
|4. What does the acronym GUBU stand for?||Acronym|
|5. What is the meaning of the medical term axilla?||Medical|
|6. What is the difference between elemental and elementary and how should these words be used?||Usage|
|7. Can you find a synonymn for the word habitual?||Synonym, thesaurus|
|8. What does the Australian acronymn MEG stand for?||Acronym|
|9. What is the origin of the word penguin?||Historical principles|
|10. What does the scientific term 'inertial damping' mean?||Scientific|
|11. I am looking for a word with a meaning similar to peaceful.||Synonym, thesaurus|
|12. When was the word lurch first used?||Historical principles|
|13. What is a New York cut?||American|
|14. Skite is a word used in Australian slang. What does it mean?||Australian|
|15. What does the abbreviation 'Br J Admin L' stand for?||Abbreviations|
|16. What is the Spanish word for handkerchief?||Spanish|
|17. When would I use the word prescribe instead of proscribe?||Usage|
|18. Who said 'a man will turn over half a library to make one book'?||Quotations|
|19. I am in a hurry and need a definition of the word incorrigible.||General English|
|20. Where are the metatarsal bones located in the human body?||Medical|
Find the answer to these questions using a dictionary. Name the source and give its bibliographic details.
- Can you find a synonym for the word intellect?
mind, psyche, mentality
Roget’s thesaurus of English words and phrases. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, p. 181.
- What does solar plexus mean?
network of nerves situated behind the stomach that supply the abdominal organs
Collins concise dictionary, 3rd ed. Sydney: Harper Collins, 1995, p. 1279.
- When was the word break-neck first used?
Shorter Oxford English dictionary, 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, c1973, p. 233.
- What colour is american beauty?
A deep purplish red.
Webster’s third new international dictionary. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, c1993, p. 68.
- What does NEBM stand for?
No eating between meals.
Acronyms, initalisms and abbreviations dictionary. 22nd ed. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, c1997, vol. 1. part 2., p. 2452.
- Find examples of how the word son-in-law was used in the 1800s.
“How would you find him for a son-in-law?”
Shorter Oxford English dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, c1973, p. 2030.
- When would I use the term imaginary instead of imaginative?
Imaginary = not real; imaginative = inventive, original
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, p. 380.
- What is the scientific instrument called an integrating meter?
an electrical instrument which sums up the value of the quantity measured with respect to time Chambers science and technology dictionary. Cambridge: Chambers-Cambridge, c1988, p.489.
- What does the Australian acronym MMBW stand for?
Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works
Australian dictionary of acronyms and abbreviations, 4th ed., Canberra: ALIA Press, c1995, p. 289
- What is a pea jacket?
A sailor’s short heavy woolen overcoat.
Collins’ concise dictionary, 3rd ed., Sydney: HarperCollins, 1995, p. 389.
- What is a lincoln rocker which was named after the US President, Abraham Lincoln?
A type of high-backed rocking chair
Webster’s third new international dictionary, Springfield, Massachusetts, Merriam-Webster, c1993, p.314
- Can you find a word with a meaning similar to ascent?
accession, lift, upward motion, gaining height
Roget’s thesaurus of English words and phrases, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, p. 181
- What is the recommended plural for bureau?
Fowlers’ modern English usage, 3rd ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, p. 120
- What does the Australian term nong mean?
a fool, a idiot
Macquarie dictionary, 3rd ed., North Ryde, N.S.W, Macquarie Library, 1997, p. 1465.
- Find a word for tomorrow in two other languages.
domain – Italian
Cassell’s Italian-English, English-Italian dictionary, 7th ed., London: Cassell, 1967, p. 1026.
morgen – German
Cassell’s German-English, English-German dictionary, Rev. ed., London: Cassell, c1978, p. 1497.
- What does the expression ‘on the never-never’ mean?
to get or buy something on hire purchase
Brewer’s dictionary of phrase and fable, 15th ed., London, Cassell, 1995, p. 741.
- What is the French word for laugh?
Cassell’s French-English, English-French dictionary, London, Cassell, 1962, p. 287.
- What is the meaning of the medical term coryza?
the technical name of a ‘cold in the head’
Black’s medical dictionary, 36th ed., London, Black, c1990, p. 172.
- Who was described in the quote ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’?
Lord Byron – described by Lady Caroline Lamb.
Oxford dictionary of quotations, 3rd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 306.
- What does the Australian expression ‘daylight robbery’ mean?
a shameless attempt to rob, overcharge or cheat someone
Macquarie dictionary, 3rd ed., Macquarie University, N.S.W., Macquarie Library, 1997, p. 555.
An encyclopedia is a systematic summary of all significant knowledge or a summary of the knowledge on one subject. All encyclopedias are selective to some extent; they may be in a single volume or a multi-volume set. A single volume cannot give depth of coverage, but it is useful for factual information and cheaper than a multi-volume set. When using an encyclopedia you should always read the introduction to find out the strengths and features as well as how the information is organized.
Along with dictionaries, encyclopedias are the most frequently consulted reference tools. The primary use is to search for specific facts – i.e. to answer who, what, where, when and how. They are often the first step towards a more extended search.
General encyclopedias are usually shelved together. Subject encyclopedias are classified according to subject, and are therefore dispersed through the collection.
Encyclopedias provide background information, and are not usually intended for the subject specialist. Articles are written by subject experts and adapted by editorial staff. Those signed by contributors are more likely to be authoritative. Most articles include a bibliography listing further reading. Most encyclopedias adopt a policy of continuous revision. Approximately 10-15% of the contents is updated annually, and topics involving current events are updated more frequently. Some publishers issue yearbooks to update the main sequence, or supplements for particular regions.
The majority of multi-volume general encyclopedias in English are now published in the United States, which has lower production costs and a larger market than the United Kingdom.
An encyclopedia may be used to provide the following information:
- brief factual details where there is little controversy – e.g. to answer questions like ‘Who was Helen Porter Mitchell?’
- an introduction to or an overview of a topic for the non-expert
- referral to other more detailed works through a bibliography at the end of the article.
An encyclopedia is usually the first source used by those seeking factual information. If the required information is not contained in the encyclopedia, the list of readings may lead you to other sources.
Find an example of each of the following types of encyclopedias and list the titles.
Many encyclopedias are now available on CD-ROM or the Internet. These formats enhance the contents by adding animation and sound effects. Another advantage of electronic reference works is that cross-referencing is easily achieved by the use of hypertext. This allows a reader to click on an indicated word for further or related information.
As with the printed form, each encyclopedia is designed for a certain audience, and the information is tailored to serve that group. In evaluating these forms of encyclopedias, you must be aware of the following considerations:
- Is the encyclopedia based on a printed version, even if it is under a different name?
- Is the information up to date?
- Are the pictures and sounds relevant to that particular article?
- Is the name of the contributor given?
- Is there a bibliography or further reading?
- Is the information easy to find?
Browse the reference shelves in the library. Find 5 examples of subject-specific encyclopedias and list the titles.
Choose two of the topics listed and compare the coverage in two general encyclopedias – e.g. Encyclopedia Britannia and World book encyclopedia.
|The Red Cross||Jane Austen|
When deciding which encyclopedia to use:
- Listen to or read the question carefully and decide whether the information is likely to be in a general or a subject-specific encyclopedia.
- Find out how much information is required. Some questions will be answered adequately in a general encyclopedia. For example, the answer to ‘where was Alexander the Great born?’ could be found in a single volume encyclopedia. If the enquirer asked for a list of campaigns which Alexander the Great fought and a description of the major battles including maps of the battlefields, you would need a more detailed encyclopedia such as Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- Decide whether the question indicates a particular subject or country – e.g. if the enquirer wants information on a technical scientific topic, you would use a scientific encyclopedia rather than a general encyclopedia.
Search on the Internet to find a range of encyclopedias. You should choose a search engine such as Yahoo at http://www.yahoo.com/ Click on Reference, then on Encyclopedia. Write the titles of 5 encyclopedias.
Choose examples of encyclopedias in print or electronic form from the list below. Fill in the details for as many as you can locate (at least 5). Photocopy the headings if you need additional space.
|Australian encyclopaedia||International encyclopedia of the social sciences|
|Cambridge encyclopedia||McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of science and technology|
|Chambers encyclopaedia||Microsoft Encarta|
|Colier's encyclopedia||The new Encyclopaedia Britannica|
|The encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia||World book encylopedia|
Place, publisher, date
Intended user group
Using sources you are familiar with, suggest a type of encyclopedia which is likely to provide the answers to the following questions – e.g. an Australian encyclopedia. (You do not need to give the exact title or bibliographic details.)
|1. Who was Yuri Gagarin?||General|
|2. My primary school child wants some information on the flags of the world.||Children's general|
|3. When was the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia established?||Australian|
|4. Where is the Skeena River?||General|
|5. Who wrote the American national anthem 'The Star-Spangled Banner'?||American|
|6. I am writing an essay on nuclear structure and need some information on this topic.||Scientific|
|7. I would like a complete list of the works by Charles Dickens and detailed information about his influence on English literature.||Detailed encyclopedia|
|8. Can you find some illustrations on battles fought during the American Civil War?||American|
|9. How do fluorescent lights work?||Scientific|
|10. I want some information on the Aboriginal Embassy in Canberra.||Australian|
|11. Where is the Amritsar and what is it famous for?||General|
|12. My child is very interested in elephants and would like some background reading on this topic.||Children's|
|13. When was television first seen in Australia?||Australian|
|14. I am writing a thesis on the family in society and would like to find detailed information on this topic, including a bibliography of relevant publications.||Social sciences|
|15. Mary Reiby appears on the Australian $20 note. Who was she?||Australian|
|16. I would like to read more about the history of museums. Could you find some major works on this subject for me?||Detailed information|
|17. What does a gorilla eat?||General|
|18. Could you find some detailed information on nuclear reactors?||Scientific|
|19. Why did the United States enter World War II?||American|
|20. Where would I find some information on Henry Savery, author of the first novel written, printed and published in Australia?||Australian|
Find the answer to these questions using encyclopedias. Name the source and give its bibliographic details.
- Why is Amy Johnson famous?
She was the first woman to make a solo flight from England to Australia.
World book encyclopedia, 5th ed., London, World Book, c1996, vol. 11, p. 132.
- I want some information on Australian folklore.
Australian encyclopedia, 6th ed., Terrey Hills, N.S.W., Australian Geographic, 1996, vol. 4, pp. 1380-1385.
- Sir Alexander Fleming won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. Who shared the prize with him?
Sir Howard Florey and Ernst B. Chain
World book encyclopedia, 5th ed., London, World Book, c1996, vol. 7, p. 225.
- Where is Ndola?
It is the second largest town in Zambia.
The new encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, c1997, Micropaedia vol. 8, p. 572.
- I would like to find a list of works written by John Locke, the English philosopher and political theorist.
International encyclopedia of the social sciences, N.Y., Macmillan, 1968, vol. 9, pp. 464-471.
- Where can I find some information on the United States Postal Service?
Collier’s encyclopedia, N.Y., Collier, c1993, vol. 19, pp.292-296.
- I am about to start my thesis on East Asian arts and would like some background information.
The new encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, c1997, Macropaedia vol. 17, pp. 667-771.
- My primary school child needs some information on the Olympic Games.
World book encyclopedia, 5th ed., London, World Book, c1996, vol. 14, p, 432-446.
- Where is Finniss Springs, a former mission station which was operated by the United Aborigines Mission?
50 km south of Lake Eyre and West of Marree, S.A.
Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994, vol. 1, p. 364.
- What is the French name for the city Aachen?
The new encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, c1997, Micropaedia vol. 1, p. 1.
- Where did Adelaide Ironside, the Australian artist, die?
Australian encyclopedia, 6th ed., Terrey Hills, N.S.W., Australian Geographic, 1996, vol. 5, p. 1766.
- I need some detailed information on Greek and Roman civilizations.
The new encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, c1997, Macropaedia vol. 20, pp. 205-341.
- When was daylight saving first introduced in Australia?
Australian encyclopedia, 6th ed., Terrey Hills, N.S.W., Australian Geographic, 1996, vol. 3, p. 1021.
- Does your library have any information on the theory of social control?
International encyclopedia of the social sciences, N.Y., Macmillan, 1968, vol. 14, pp. 381-402.
- Where would I find detailed information on rocket propulsion?
McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of science and technology, 8th ed., N.Y., McGraw-Hill, c1997, vol. 15, pp. 623-638.
- What was the title of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s autobiography?
Eight years and more 1815-1897.
The new encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, c1997, Micropaedia vol. 11, p. 216.
- Why was the Statue of Liberty built?
It commemorates the alliance of 1778 between France and the US.
Collier’s encyclopedia, N.Y., Collier, c1993, vol. 14, p. 556.
- I want some information about Coranderk, an Aboriginal reserve near Healesville, Victoria.
Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994, vol. 1, p. 231.
- What is the population of Iowa’s principal cities?
Collier’s encyclopedia, N.Y., Collier, c1993, vol. 13, p. 213.
- Where would I find a comprehensive list of books on linguistics?
The new encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, c1997, Macropaedia vol. 23, p. 71.
Gosling, Mary. Learn Reference Work. Canberra: DocMatrix, 2001. pp.44-53.